The Rotarian Conversation: Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Photo by Rebecca Goldstein
If you believe that we are becoming a more violent society and you don’t mind being told you’re wrong, you will find comfort in Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker, the acclaimed cognitive scientist at Harvard who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, examines archaeological and anthropological evidence to show that early tribal societies were much more violent than later societies with central governments. As a result of a “civilizing process” marked by the development of laws, commerce, and especially literacy, we humans have shown an increasing ability to control our impulses, use our powers of reason, and empathize with others.
Most will argue that the 20th century was the deadliest in history, pointing to two world wars waged with modern weapons and a total number of violent deaths eclipsing that of any earlier century. But Pinker notes that during the preceding eras, the world was in a nearly constant state of war. And, while the 20th century had more violent deaths, it also had more people. When you consider violent deaths as a proportion of the world’s population, only one of the 20th-century atrocities – World War II – makes the top 10.
The 20th century, according to Pinker, “was not a permanent plunge into depravity.” World War I was dubbed “the war to end all wars,” and world leaders tried to fulfill that hope by forming the League of Nations. Although counter-Enlightenment ideologies led to the horrendous violence of World War II, Pinker says, the endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by 43 countries in 1948 was “a signal event.” The second half of the 20th century marks the longest period of peace among great powers in 500 years. This extended peace is “a result of one of those psychological retunings that take place now and again over the course of history and cause violence to decline,” Pinker asserts. The better angels of our nature, as Abraham Lincoln described them, are winning a long-running conflict with our inner demons.
To help reconcile our optimism and our skepticism about a peaceful world, frequent contributor Paul Engleman recently talked to Pinker.
THE ROTARIAN: Was there a single piece of research that prompted you to start examining the decline in violence?
PINKER: Two discoveries gave me the general idea for my book: a book review by Lawrence Keeley, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, showing that prehistoric tribal societies had vastly higher rates of death from violence than modern ones (even if one includes the deaths from the two world wars), and a graph from Ted Robert Gurr, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland, that plotted homicide rates in England since the Middle Ages and showed a fiftyfold decline. I also knew that many barbaric institutions, such as human sacrifice, heretic burning, dueling, chattel slavery, public hangings, and grisly torture-executions, had been formally abolished in most of the world, and also that World War III never happened, and that the Soviet empire went out of existence more or less peacefully. I noted these developments in an online forum, www.edge.org, whereupon scholars in many other fields wrote to me about other declines in violence, such as the worldwide plummeting of war-related deaths since the end of the Cold War, and declines in child abuse, domestic violence, and corporal punishment. That correspondence convinced me that a book tying it all together had to be written.
TR: When you compare violence today with violence in the past, you seem to be saying that savagery on a personal level is more violent than the impersonal weapons of modern technology. Should we regard the building and stockpiling of powerful weapons as less violent than one individual’s beating another to death?
PINKER: No, I don’t think that being speared is more violent than being pierced by a bullet or blown up by an artillery shell. My argument is about probabilities: We’re far less likely to be killed by bullets and bombs than our tribal ancestors were to be killed by spears and arrows.
TR: At the start of the Iraq War, Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, described “shock and awe” bombing as an enormously impressive humane effort. Where does that observation fit on the violence timeline?
PINKER: Starting a war can never be called “an enormously impressive humane effort,” though there is an element of truth in the observation that once a war is started, modern precision weaponry kills a far smaller number of civilians than the massive tank battles and indiscriminate shelling and carpet-bombing of past wars. The war to depose Saddam Hussein was extremely low in casualties (both civilian and military) compared with Vietnam or Korea; most of the deaths in Iraq were from Iraqis killing one another in the anarchy that followed. But of course the decision to initiate the Iraq War went very much against a historical trend away from wars between states, and this is the reason there has not been a comparable interstate war since.
TR: If violence is on the decline, how do we account for extreme fighting, soccer riots, and violent video games?
PINKER: A decline refers to a change over time. Mentioning the existence of certain phenomena at a single point in time is like saying, “If people have been getting taller over the centuries, how can you explain my friend Bill, who is 5 feet 7?” The question would make sense only if there were evidence that extreme fighting, soccer riots, and so on were getting more frequent over time. But there is no such evidence. Violent entertainment is as old as entertainment. Just think of the Old Testament, the Passion of the Christ, Homeric sagas, Greek tragedies, Beowulf, the Shakespearean dramas, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Punch and Judy, opera, murder mysteries, penny dreadfuls, pulp fiction, horror comics, the Three Stooges, Tom and Jerry, video games, and movies starring a certain ex-governor of California.
TR: Do virtual exercises in violence, such as movies, video games, and sports, serve as an outlet for our violent tendencies? Could our interest in video violence be viewed as a healthy sign?
PINKER: No, I think they’re pretty much independent. Violence is not a hydraulic urge, like hunger, thirst, or sexual desire, that has to be discharged through one outlet or another. It is more like shivering or jealousy – a response to particular triggers in the environment.
TR: What is the relationship between gender and violence, and how has it changed?
PINKER: Violence is largely a guy thing. In all societies, most of the homicides and assaults, and the preponderance of rapes, are committed by men, together with virtually all the tribal warfare, which is often motivated by the abduction of women or revenge for past abductions. Boys in all cultures indulge in far more rough-and-tumble play than girls do, and grown-up boys consume more violent entertainment, have more violent fantasies, and are more hawkish in their opinions and voting patterns. This is not to say that women never commit violence or are always dovish – just that there’s a large statistical difference, particularly when it comes to certain categories of violence, such as the establishment of dominance or the carrying out of revenge. The biological explanation for this psychological difference is straightforward: In virtually all mammals, males can reproduce more quickly than females, so males take greater risks to compete for mating opportunities than females do.
TR: How certain are you that the prevalent belief is that we are becoming a more violent society?
PINKER: Very certain. Not only do I repeatedly face incredulous reactions to my findings, but I conducted a survey of several hundred Internet users, which confirmed that people think the present is more violent than the past.
TR: Is the decline in violence a measure of human behavior or an actual change in the human psyche?
PINKER: It’s mostly, perhaps entirely, a change in human behavior.
TR: What will world peace look like when it arrives? How will we recognize it?
PINKER: It’s a mistake to think in categorical terms like “world peace.” If by “world peace” you mean a complete cessation of all forms of organized state-based violence over the entire globe, then it will probably never come. But that’s irrelevant – deaths from auto accidents, house fires, drowning, and other causes will never be reduced to zero either. What we have seen is that the number of wars, and that war-related deaths, have come way down. They could very well go down further, even if they never go down to zero.